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New Car Test - Holden Astra SRi Turbo

Very impressive...

by Julian Edgar

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The Holden Astra SRi Turbo has the potential to become one of the most significant new small turbo performance cars for a decade. And we don't say that just because there haven't been a lot of forced aspirated four-cylinders released in Australia in the last ten years. Nope, that's a judgement based on 4000 kilometres of driving - completed in just over a week....

From the terribly-surfaced streets of Sydney to the flowing Snowy Mountains Highway, from the boulevard-smooth roads of Canberra to the demanding bends of the Gold Coast hinterland, we threw everything we could find at the Astra Turbo - and in nearly every situation it impressed. As a practical performance package it's of the like we have never seen before. Too big a statement? Nope - try these for size:

A 0-100 km/h time in the mid-low sevens - and yet the ability to gain open-road fuel economy in the high sixes.

One hundred and forty seven kilowatts from a turbo 2-litre - and yet peak torque is available from 1950 - 5600 rpm.

Only thirty-seven grand - but it's got leather and electronic stability control.

A good-looking two-door - but with a heap of practical room under the hatch and in the back seat.

Handling which is progressive and confidence-inspiring - but with a ride that never becomes harsh.

And the compromises that you'd normally find in a sporting car? What compromises?! Hell, it's not perfect - after driving that distance, we have a raft of criticisms. But when you weigh up the worth of the package, they're small indeed ....

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Based on the 2.2-litre naturally aspirated Astra SRi, the turbo model uses a smaller 2-litre engine and swaps 147kW for 108kW - and 250Nm for 203. Unfortunately, the dollars also jump big time - unlike the Astra Convertible Turbo, which costs only chickenfeed more than its aspirated brother, the turbo hatch asks you for no less than $8000 over the cooking model. For that money you also get bigger front brakes (up 28mm to 308mm), firmer sports suspension and wider front and rear tracks, 5-spoke 17 x 7½ alloys wearing 215/40 ZR Dunlop SP Sport 8000 E tyres, ABS and switchable stability control. There's also a good-looking body kit, black leather trim and steering wheel, and alloy-finish pedals.

The heart of the car is its engine. And despite looking in some respects like an afterthought turbo installation, this is a fantastic engine. With a dead-smooth idle and hugely driveable bottom-end torque, you could be forgiven for thinking that the top-end wouldn't be that strong. And in a way you're right - with peak power at 5600 rpm, there's not a lot of point in taking the engine to 6800 rpm... which it will still do smoothly and happily.

But the bare performance times simply don't tell the story - even though a 0-100 time of 7.3 seconds is quick. It's in the cut and thrust of urban traffic - where the instantly available torque is just so unusual for a turbo car and where it's simply impossible to be caught off-boost - that the performance starts to assume greater proportions. You can short-change at 3000 rpm and still be quick; take the engine to six grand and you're seamlessly very quick. The Astra turbo specs show it to be as fast as a current Impreza WRX, but in the actual driving, most times it's quicker.

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At one stage in our two-up interstate hike we pulled out behind a '03 Rexy, both of us aiming at passing a long crocodile of cars doing a dawdling 90 down this single-lane-each-way road. Down went his foot - in third gear - and down went ours. We both whistled past the line of slower cars, speeds rapidly rising to illegal levels. (But hell, always safer to spend as little time on the wrong side of the road as possible.) The Astra nonchalantly kept up with the performance paragon - much to the astonishment of the WRX driver who could barely take his eyes off his mirrors. He would have been even more distressed if he'd looked under the Astra's hatch - there he'd have found some hefty luggage. The WRX contained just the driver...

On the open road the torqueiness of the engine is quite incredible. Helped no doubt by the cold ambient temps experienced during our trip, there was literally no open-road hill that required a down-change if the speed was above 80 km/h. Despite the turbo model having a slightly taller 5th and an 8 per cent longer final drive, at cruising speeds the Astra feels - if anything - under-geared.

But still, if you can have this much instant passing response - and still get brilliant fuel economy - why change?

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The official government test figures show that the turbo 2-litre is actually more fuel-efficient than the naturally aspirated SRi around the city - 8.5 litres/100km for the turbo and 9 litres/100 for the naturally aspirated. On the open road the order of the figures is reversed - with the turbo 0.4 litres/100 worse - but in the real world, we still gained open-road economy that can only be considered as stunning with this much power and the breadth of torque that is available. Driving from the Gold Coast to Sydney, Canberra, the NSW snowfields and return (a 3500km trip) gave an average consumption of 7.3 litres/100km. Is there a car with more driveable performance that can better that figure?

We don't know of it....

So how do the front wheels cope with all that torque being channelled through them? Most times, very well. Helped by the electronic throttle traction control, the Astra Turbo usually puts down its power and charges off into the distance. However, give it an uneven or slippery surface and torque-steer does intrude. It's not as bad as in the Astra Turbo Convertible, but it's still no mystery which end is doing the driving.

Handling for the most part is excellent, with the front-wheel driver power understeer controlled with the subtlety and progressiveness that is the traction control hallmark of all the Holdens sourced from Opel. However - and as we said with the Turbo Convertible - the Astra isn't a car with a fluid, intuitive handling. Around centre the steering is slow - much too slow for a car like this. The brakes - especially when they are up to temperature - have an immediate and strong bite, the right foot flexes provide instant and muscular response, and the firm damping and low profile tyres give immediate road feedback. But the steering is from a different car - you can waggle it as you drive along in a straight line and the car only just deviates... Magna steering when Commodore steering would be far better.

Most drivers will soon adapt to the steering, but we came across one situation which really highlighted its inadequacies - and those of the headlights.

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Crossing a mountain range at night, we were confronted with a sinuous, tight and narrow road. Never having been this way before, the radius of every corner was a surprise - and because of the narrow spread of light from the headlights, a surprise seen only at the last minute. Both the high and low beams lack width, with the high beam also having a weird triangular spread of light that illuminates the tops of trees immediately in front of the car when cornering. Mix not being able to see the apex of the corner with the slow steering response and you have an ever-diminishing road speed, as the driver struggles to see where he is going and actually get the car to follow that path.

But it's important that the steering not be overemphasised as a negative - many people will never notice any problem at all...

Handling is grippy, although just the right (wrong) bump at the corner apex can cause a little rear-end hop. With the sophisticated stability control hard at work, most times it's just a case of point-and-power, although in very tight conditions (like powering around urban roundabouts) the understeer can become quite strong. The ride is quite acceptable, although when heavily laden, the suspension travel can be borderline over fast-driven bumpy roads.

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The seats are excellent - and one day we spent more than 13 hours driving - and NVH generally good, let down only by tyre noise intruding from the rear. Fresh-air ventilation is poor - even with cold ambient temps during our test period, to get enough airflow through the car required the fan on its second setting. But mostly the in-cabin equipment budget has been spent in the right places - like an excellent cruise control and trip computer, but manual air conditioning. The single CD radio is nothing groundbreaking - although its design makes it relatively easy to upgrade it - but the excellent trip computer also displays warnings for faults such as broken brakelights and low washer fluid.

Packaging is outstanding, with a huge amount of room in the back seats. Full-size adults can be seated there comfortably for long trips, although ventilation is (again!) an issue for them as the rear windows don't open and no rear-of-console vents are provided. The rear seat folds down (although not flat) in the normal 60:40 split, giving a large load area.

In summary? The Astra SRi Turbo is an excellent car that mixes usable and accessible performance with great economy and practicality.

Why you would:

  • Excellent, accessible performance
  • Excellent economy
  • Reassuring handling, aided by sophisticated electronic stability control
  • Good equipment level
  • Practical, comfortable, capacious
  • Equally at home in the city or driving interstate

Why you wouldn't:

  • Steering a little slow

The Astra SRi Turbo was provided for this test by Holden

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